Today I Learned #4

Today I learned (more) about William F. Friedman, the true “father of American cryptography”:

  • Friedman wrote the de facto standard texts on cryptanalysis. His pamphlets are still considered the prerequisite for cryptanalysts today, or at least, they were at the time The Codebreakers was written.
  • He invented the term “cryptanalysis”, as well as “monalphabetic” and “polyalphabetic”!
  • His magnum opus, The Index of Coincidence and its Applications in Cryptanalysis, brought cryptanalysis out of isolation and meshed it with the world of statistics and mathematics. I cannot understate how important this work was to modern cryptanalysis — without this work, cryptanalysis as we know it today would exist, but in a stunted, deformed state. If I recommended Codebreakers for one reason, it would be for the sublime beauty in Friedman’s techniques described within. I have to admit, I don’t understand a lot of the descriptions of cryptanalysis in the book, but Friedman’s methods are as simple and sweet as apple pie, and as powerful as a howitzer.
  • They say “behind every great man is a great woman”, and Friedman was no exception. Elizebeth Smith Friedman most notably worked with William to disprove the theory that Francis Bacon was the author of Shakespeare’s plays, by tearing apart the supposed “cryptograms” hidden within.
  • Friedman not only brought America to the forefront of worldwide cryptological prowess, but also fathered the NSA. The NSA is the direct descendant of the organization that Friedman created single-handedly (with Elizebeth by his side, of course).
  • In an episode that appears to be somewhat common throughout Codebreakers, Friedman sadly suffered a nervous breakdown in 1941 and was hospitalized for months, due to the sheer stress of the work involved. We see this today in software engineers in the form of “burnout”. In other cases (unrelated to Friedman), some cryptanalysts babbled incoherently, hallucinated, and suffered all manner of horrific things due to the pure fatigue of working on a problem nonstop.
  • Without Friedman, America would likely have been unable to solve the PURPLE cipher used by the Japanese in WWII. Who knows what the outcome of the war would have been without the intelligence gathered thanks to Friedman and his team…

It should go without saying that Friedman is now on my list of personal heroes, along with Étienne Bazeries. He was a true genius, a polymath, a visionary, a scholar, a man of the greatest importance in cryptology. I can’t truly do him justice here, but hopefully, I’ve shed some light on the brilliance that was William F. Friedman.

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